An interview with Artistic Director David McAllister
What were the artistic or technical challenges faced by the artists who produced Nutcracker – The Story of Clara?
This ballet spans the period from the 1890s to the 1950s, and covers some of the most tumultuous events in the world at that time. The main character of Clara is played by three dancers, who portray Clara the Child, Clara the Ballerina and Clara the Elder. When you are casting these dancers, there needs to be a link between them both visually and physically to ensure the storytelling is seamless. All of the dancers need to have the stage presence and artistry to tell the story of their shared life.
Nutcracker – The Story of Clara is a ballet filled with great ensemble dancing for the whole cast and some very moving and physically demanding pas de deux for the three leading dancers: Clara the Ballerina, the Beloved Officer and the Nutcracker Prince. As in all Graeme Murphy’s ballets, the partnering is spectacular and there are a lot of complicated and demanding lifts, requiring great strength and daring from both the women and men.
How does this production differ from other versions of The Nutcracker that the company has done?
It’s very different from traditional versions of The Nutcracker. It was created for our 30th anniversary in 1992 (which was also the 100th anniversary of the original production), and it draws inspiration from the Imperial Ballet of St Petersburg, the rise of the Ballets Russes, and Ballet Russes tours to Australia in the late 1930s. Dancers from these companies stayed in Australia and nurtured a great love for ballet, opening schools and founding companies laid the ground for the establishment of The Australian Ballet.
Murphy’s Nutcracker has themes that anyone can relate to – growing older, travelling, looking back on your life. How do you think his version uses these themes to appeal to or relate to a youth audience?
As young people, we sometimes don’t really understand the ageing process or take into consideration the breadth of experience and knowledge that older people have gained through their lives. This production follows Clara’s long and interesting life. We see her as a young girl aspiring to be a dancer, as a ballerina at the peak of her artistic life and then as an older woman looking back and confronting her future. Seeing the three stages of Clara’s life so clearly portrayed gives us a greater understanding of the ageing process.
Is the style of the ballet vocabulary more contemporary or is it a mix of contemporary and classical?
While the production is based in classical ballet vocabulary, Murphy also dips into more contemporary partnering. There’s a lot of floor work, as well as off-balance and counterbalanced moves. The corps de ballet (group) dances have quite a bit more pas de deux in them than in the more traditional ballets, although there are sections like the beginning of Act II, set in the Imperial Conservatoire, which use very traditional ballet choreography.
How do you think choreographers like Murphy are evolving the ballet genre?
Choreographers like Graeme Murphy, Matthew Bourne and Christopher Wheeldon are reimagining the 19th-century classics to give these classic stories more relevance to 21st-century audiences. While there are purists who see this as a step too far, I think these works are a valuable way of introducing the classical repertoire to new audiences, and exposing them to an art form that they may not have previously been interested in.
Who is your favourite character in the ballet and how does their costume design denote who they are?
When I was a principal artist with The Australian Ballet, I loved dancing the Prince who partners Clara in the Grand Pas de deux in Act II of the ballet. He has a very opulent costume that always reminded me of the famous portraits of Vaslav Nijinsky. You can see by the lavish costume that he has one of the leading roles, and the shape and design of the costume is very much of that late 19th century, in a period when the male dancers did less dancing and wore more structured and ornate costumes.